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*Editor's Note: The following is an edited version of a conversation with Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh of Little Brother about their ongoing conflict with ABB Records in the wake of the announced Fat Beats re-issue of 2005s The Minstrel Show. It has been modified for clarity and length.
Phonte: This is all strictly for Ben Nickleberry, Jr. at ABB Records. We haven't spoken to Benny at all. We've reached out to him to no response. I've reached out to him via text. Pooh has reached out before. In the past two or three days, since all of this came to light, I've had people reach out to me. Like, Fat Beats reached out to me saying "We talked to Benny." So I've had other people reach out saying that they're talking to him but he's not talking to us. Get the fuck outta here. If your phone can work, if you can call them, you can call us.
Pooh: The fans are very cognizant of where their money is going. They want to know that the money is going to benefit the artist. So we alerted them: y'all going to get these reissues ain't supporting us. Y'all are supporting Ben Nickleberry of ABB Records. That's who y'all are supporting. Y'all not supporting Pooh, y'all not supporting Phonte—y'all supporting him. And when we alerted them to that, they rose to the occasion and said "Nah, we ain't going for it."
We definitely thank them for that. They supported us—as they did for De La Soul and as they did for Anita Baker and as they did for Dave Chappelle.
Phonte: And understand something—Benny is a Black man! I know white folks get a lotta smoke in the music industry—and rightfully so—but this is not the case! A white man is not involved in this, believe it or not! This is a Black man. My "Black brother." Everything that you would think of as the antithesis of the traditional music industry: Black-owned business, independent, coming outta Oakland. Home of the Black Panthers! Oakland wrote the book on independence in Hip-Hop! Me and Pooh are cut from that same cloth. It made total sense. For someone to have all those modifiers and to behave worse than any major label I've ever dealt with...
Through it all, the only party that we've had no smoke with at all is Atlantic Records! The "big, evil" major label. The "white capitalist conglomerate!" We have no smoke with the conglomerate! They took a chance on us. I think The Minstrel Show's performance, or lack thereof, had more to do with who we were as a group and the time that we came in. We were making a kind of Hip-Hop at a time when that kind of music wasn't on the radio.
Pooh: We were ahead of the curve. The game was changing. Labels were fighting that change. They didn't know what to do with us. We were an anomaly. We didn't fit into their system. And when we all recognized that, they let us go.
Phonte: They did not waste our time. I have absolutely no smoke with them people.
Pooh: We even got to keep the masters to Get Back. Because we had a lot of that album done when we left. We got to walk away with that, as well.
Phonte: But this has been Benny's pattern for twenty years: whenever you reach out to have that discussion, he'll just ghost you and get missing. I'm not playing hide-n-seek with you over my fucking money. We're not doing that. We've been straightforward and have kept it private. This is the first time Pooh and I have ever spoken out in any kind of detail to this degree.
Pooh: This is not the first time we've tried to get what's ours. This is just the first time we've spoken about it publicly. That's what it is. At this point, now I'm going to ruin whatever you have left—until you give me what's mine. Because that was blatant disrespect, to continue to reissue these records when you know you haven't begun to make things right with us, the people who made those records.
When I feel disrespected, Imma get loud! And social media is the new customer service. You want to get something together, you take it to social media.
Phonte: I first became aware of the vinyl re-pressing on Fat Beats in 2017. I saw it then and I had a conversation with Fat Beats. I told them straight up. The only reason I didn't scream on this shit back then was because of my relationship with Fat Beats. Because I'd done business with Fat Beats before and they'd always done straight business with me. Me and my partner Nicolay, Foreign Exchange, FE Music, we've done vinyl through Fat Beats, always been paid on time, never had to run them down for money. I've done several projects with them on both the label side and the distribution side. Never had a problem with Fat Beats.
So when I saw those first reissues, I was like "Man, I don't want to scream on them because I don't want to fuck Fat Beats shit up." I respect the relationship we have. I just figured this was some ol' Benny bullshit and I'll see him when I see him. We'll settle it up then. Plus, at the time, the LB brand wasn't active. Pooh and I, we were friends, we were talking and all good and everything, but we weren't really out moving around. We weren't working on a new record or anything. Things were kind of dormant.
Pooh: "I was on tour with the Beatnuts and we went to Oakland and he showed up at the show. I had the dressing room cleared out so Benny and I could talk."
And I told him then: You've got to make this shit right. This is a lot of years, bro; and we don't know anything and we haven't seen anything. You've got to make this right.
Phonte: So, I see Benny in 2019. We see him at Heiro Day [in Oakland]. He comes up to me and says "hey, man." I shake his hand and it's peaceful. I was just cool. I said "Look, man—you need to make this right. Don't talk to me like you don't owe me money, nigga. Make this right."
This is two years: 2018 you talked to Pooh and 2019 you talked to me. So in 2021, a few days ago, one of my homies drops in our groupchat that there's another re-pressing. You ain't finna play in my gotdamn face! You've had 20 years to make this right.
Pooh: For us, it's about the lack of accountability on ABB's part. I put it like this: You go to work every day. You do what you're supposed to do. A few years go by, and you notice you've never gotten your paycheck. But you keep coming in to work. You finally get tired of it and go get another job, and they pay you. Are you willing to walk away from the debt you're owed from your previous employer?
If you say we still owe you money, then show us. It's that simple. If your argument is that we owe you money—I don't know how the hell that is—but if we do, show us. Show us the proof, the paperwork, the accounting that says we still owe you X amount of dollars. It's just negligence on his part.
And the thing that really cuts deep is...we've seen you reissue these records before and we never said anything.
Phonte: We signed a deal with ABB in the beginning. We signed our first deal for The Listening. Then we got signed to Atlantic through ABB for The Minstrel Show, Atlantic took over the accounting for that. That's a major label. That was that. The last album we did through ABB was Get Back. As of the last Soundscans I've seen, The Listening is maybe 50 or 60,000; Get Back is between 40K or 50K. This is 110K records that have been sold that we have not seen one piece of accounting for since 2004.
If it was still a thing of us still owing and "we've got expenses," then show me the paperwork. I run a label, I know how it goes. But there's no way.
We say the term "Making it right," but there is no way financially that Ben Nickleberry, Jr. of ABB Records can make this right.
Pooh: That's the thing we definitely want to make clear. We put the statement out and I see people like "Oh, why don't you do this or that." This isn't about the money he owes. We know he can't repay that. This is about giving us our masters back. That's all we want.
Phonte: You can't make good on that, bro. That's all we want. Just run us our shit back. Go do whatever the fuck it is you're going to do. You're never going to put out another record again. Your name is dead out here. Nobody is ever putting out another record on ABB. Nigga, it's over. You had a good run. It was nice. You ate for a while. But it's over. Give us our shit back. That is the only thing that even remotely begins to even approach the possibility of making things right: giving us full ownership back to our The Listening masters and the vinyl rights to The Minstrel Show. That's it.
Pooh and I have never been those guys. If we had problems, we always make it a point to try and rectify those problems personally. Even when me and Pooh had problems with each other back in the day, I wasn't going on social media. That ain't who the fuck we are. We don't do this type of shit.
A lot of people have asked, "Why don't you just sue?" This is not a criminal trial. This is not a criminal issue or an issue of somebody beat you up or hit you or assaulted you and you go to criminal court. This is not that. In the record business, a lawsuit can drag out for years and for me, as an independent artist, the thing I realized was my most important commodity was my time. I'm not going to spend time litigating for old music because that's time not making new music. In court haggling over The Listening, that's time I'm not making Leave It All Behind, that's time I'm not making Charity Starts At Home, that's time i'm not making Tigallerro, that's time that me and Pooh aren't making May the Lord Watch. Because we tied up with this bullshit. So from both of our perspectives, we just want to move forward with our careers and our lives. We are good. We just want to move forward. So going through a lawsuit, even if you spent the money to pursue a lawsuit; if you came out with the most slam dunk victory, there's still no guarantee you'll collect your fucking money.
So not to disappoint "Twitter At Law," but the law does not work like that in these cases. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and you still end up with nothing.